Rocky Mountain Ice: Winter Hike in Grotto Canyon

frozen riverbed in Grotto Canyon on a winter hike in the Rockies

When Tammy suggested the Grotto Canyon Ice Walk for this mid-February Sunday, I was a bit nervous. After all, I don’t own ice cleats (those metal spiky things you put on your boots), and I certainly don’t have any ice climbing experience. But now that I’ve done it, I can’t believe I’ve lived in Calgary for so long without visiting the canyon. If you’re a business traveler visiting Calgary in the winter, this would make a great Business Trip Bonus Day, giving you a quick taste of the Rockies.

They call it a “walk” for a reason; It’s not a technical climb or even a difficult hike. We did see some ice climbers practicing their skills along the way, but the trail itself was an easy hike with very little elevation change.

Setting out

The trail starts out beside the Baymag Magnesium Plant. You can hear the continuous hum of the factory for the first portion of the trail. It was a gorgeous, sunny day with temperatures hovering around 0° Celsius (32° F). A unusually mild winter meant that much of the approach was actually mud instead of the normal snow and ice.

A few minutes into our walk, we heard, and then saw a gorgeous bald eagle circling high above us. He only graced us with a couple of laps before he disappeared behind the tree line – not enough time to dig out my camera, unfortunately.

After a short trek on a forested path, we ended up at the riverbed. It was time to attach my borrowed cleats, since the rest of the trail was the frozen river itself. Many of the other walkers were negotiating the route slowly and carefully without cleats, but having them made the walk much easier.

The trail was well-visited that day, families with dogs and young children among the hikers. If it’s solitude you’re seeking, you won’t find it here, at least not on a mild winter weekend.

ancient rock painting showing a human figureOn the first section of the riverbed we could hear water gurgling underneath the ice. Our boots crunched crunched and squeaked as we walked along,the sun beaming through gaps in the rocks.

We knew to look out for the pictographs and we spotted them on the left side of the canyon not too far into the walk. One human figure was easy to make out, while others were quite faded. It’s believed they were painted hundreds of years ago by visiting Hopi Indians who had traveled from Arizona (a long journey!). Recently the ancient paintings have been deteriorating from visitors touching them. The flood of 2013 that sent water, rocks and logs rushing through the canyon probably didn’t help either.

Kids & climbers

After this point, the canyon walls grew higher and the gorge narrowed. The rock faces were worn smooth. They showed off striations and voluptuous curves, the result of thousands of years of water flow.

We came across a group of a 10 to 12 guys navigating their remote-controlled toy vehicles along the  icy riverbed. These were grown men having some nerdy fun with their expensive toys. It was hilarious to watch, but not exactly a peaceful “communing with nature” sort of experience. Here’s a taste of the trail so far:

Further along we saw a couple of small frozen waterfalls, but they were nowhere near as dramatic or lovely as they must normally be under regular (colder) winter conditions. Still relatively intact were the main falls, off to the right down a side alcove. This is where the only real ice climbing action was to be had, with quite a few athletes giving it a try. The smooth, undulating approach to the falls created a natural ice slide for kids of all ages.

Grotto Canyon Collage

The last section of the canyon was narrow, winding, deep, and much less traveled. The riverbed became rockier and trickier to navigate, with large boulders eventually dominating the path. There  finally was a bit of  peace and quiet, but it would have been challenging to go much further. It was mid-afternoon, so it was time to turn back anyway. The whole walk, with plenty of time for admiring the views, took less than 90 minutes round trip.

Getting to Grotto Canyon

From Canmore, take Highway 1A / Bow Valley Trail east for 14 kms. Look for the signed Grotto Pond Day Use Area and turn left into the parking lot.

From Calgary, travel west on the Trans Canada highway to Exit #114 / Highway 1X (signs for Exshaw). You’ll follow a long curve before turning left (west) onto Highway 1A / Bow Valley Trail. Look for the Grotto Pond parking area about 11 km’s down the highway.

From the parking area, walk west and you’ll soon spot the trail-head sign. This Back Country Blog (written by an experienced local mountain guide) has a more detailed description of the trail and how to find it.

Fueling up

There are lots of great places to fortify yourself before and/or after the hike. I’ve written up my favourite spots to eat and drink.

Gearing up

ice cleats

Follow the usual mountain activity advice for dressing in warm layers and being prepared for rapid weather changes. You’ll need sturdy winter hiking boots. If you don’t have ice cleats (also called trail crampons), you can rent them from an outdoor shop like Gear Up Mountain and Sport Rentals in Canmore. In Calgary, try the U of C Outdoor Centre. If you think you’ll use them again, you might want to buy some at Mountain Equipment Co-op – prices start around $25. My borrowed pair was  similar to the ones pictured here and did the job quite nicely.

Finally, always check trail conditions before you head out.

Happy trails,

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